Do you skim?

This is kind of follow-up post to “Gulp or sip,” and like that post it arises from a conversation with a friend. (A different friend. I have a lot of friends who like to read.) This friend said that if she was getting bored with something in a book she’d skip ahead until it got interesting. “How do you know?” I asked. “I skim,” she replied. “If there’s a boring action sequence, or a boring sex scene, I’ll skim until we get back to something interesting.” To clarify—she doesn’t read all the words. She stops reading and just casts her eyes over the text, speed reading occasional phrases until she has missed the bit she doesn’t like. It’s as if she’s re-reading and she decides to skip a thread she didn’t enjoy, except without having ever read it in the first place. Or it’s like the way you might look for a particular bit on a page to quote without getting sucked in to reading the whole thing, except without having read it before. It’s not like the way you can keep reading in your sleep and suddenly realise you didn’t take in the last few pages. It’s a deliberate action—the way in a non-fiction book you might decide to not read a chapter that covers a topic you don’t need. Except, of course, that she does it with fiction, and not to a clearly marked end point, but to where the text gets interesting again.

I never do this. I’ve never even thought of it. It seems really weird to me.

So what I want to know is, do other people do this?

Ugol’s law states that if you ask “Am I the only one who…?” the answer is always no. There are things absolutely nobody does, but if any one person does something, then there are others who also do it. So it seems very likely that it’s not just my friend, and other people do this.

What I want to know is, don’t you miss things? I mean it might look like a boring sex scene, but who knows that the protagonists aren’t going to break off foreplay to discuss the way neutron stars work? (Real example.) Or who knows what clever things the author might be doing in a boring battle scene? Patrick O’Brian uses them for characterisation. If a book is really too dull for me to care what happens, I might put it down altogether, but if it’s interesting enough to keep reading, I can’t imagine just skipping a chunk—nor have I really got a handle on where you’d start reading again. How can you tell? And how do you know you didn’t miss something vital that might have made the whole book make more sense?

I’m talking about reading for pleasure here. I understand how it’s possible to read boring non-fiction for information, and skip the sections labeled as containing no useful information. And I’m mostly talking about reading SF and fantasy, though goodness knows I don’t skim when I’m reading mainstream novels either.

I read in hope of little sparkling moments that are going to turn my head inside out. I increase my chances of getting them by reading the kind of writers who have done that to me before: (Vinge, Delany, Dean, Le Guin, Wilson, Schroeder, Cherryh…) where really skipping even a paragraph might leave you lost and confused at the end. I can see that there are other writers who I enjoy whose work isn’t that dense, but I still don’t want to miss anything. Who knows where that moment might be hidden? It’s either worth reading or it isn’t, I can’t see the point of half-reading it. I can’t understand how that could be fun. If it hasn’t sucked me in so that I want to keep reading it then I might as well be eating broccoli. Or reading something else.

Are there books that have good bits and bad bits so clearly defined that this makes sense as a reading strategy? Why have I never read any of them? (Hypothesis: They’re all about vampires and pirates.) How widespread is this anyway? If you do it, what do you get out of it? And if you’ve done it, do you feel as if you’ve really read the book and can talk about it afterwards?

(Health warning: If you do this skimming thing with my books, please don’t mention it. You might send me into a decline.)

“Welcome Peek…” photo/illustration by Flickr user Liber the poet

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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